ELL in the Heartland
Where is the population of English language learners growing fastest? It’s not California or the South.
It’s the rural and suburban Midwest.
In rural Kansas, along the Oklahoma border, nearly half the students are Spanish-speaking English learners. Demographics have changed quickly and decisively in the last decade, says Carol Swinney who taught high school there in the late 1990s.
"Our school got its first Spanish-speaking student and didn't know what to do with him," recalls Swinney. "So he was sent to me. I wasn't ESL licensed but since I taught Spanish, I was as close as he had at the time. I set him up on an independent study and he became my authentic native speaker."
When Swinney was teaching, most jobs for immigrant families in Kansas were in the cities; today those jobs have moved into the southwestern corner of the state. Swelling numbers of English learners in the public schools triggered an initial response at the district level: Hire ESL specialists, even if it meant schools had to share them. The second response, Swinney says, was to train the content area teachers to incorporate ESL approaches into classroom instruction.
"In our part of the state, having an ESL endorsement is pretty much a given," says Swinney, who now works helping teachers prepare for the Praxis ESL licensure test. "We are working with content area teachers at the request of the superintendent—math, science, computer, and P.E. teachers. That's where we need to be moving."
Nearly 5.5 million English language learner (ELL) students are enrolled in U.S. public schools, double the number from the mid-1990s. The fastest-growing student population in the country, English language learners are expected to double again by 2025. While most are enrolled in urban district schools, by far the biggest growth is taking place in rural and suburban districts with no history of serving ELL students, states including Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, and South Carolina. These communities are also the least prepared for the influx.
How to handle the increase? "A series of staff training workshops on ESL are simply not adequate for teachers who have English learners in their classrooms," says Anne Dahlman, a professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato. "Schools that invest in teachers who have a double license in elementary education and ESL—at the middle/high school level, in social studies and ESL—have a great advantage."
In Minnesota, nearly half of English learners are refugees, young people who have fled war or famine. These students, Dahlman notes, have unique basic needs which ideally should be met before the students are held accountable for mastering academic concepts.
Among the suburban districts experiencing a large influx of refugee newcomers, the most successful use a series of strategies to support the students and teachers.
• Create a network of support within the school community. This may include social workers, special education and language specialists, community leaders, and local cultural organizations.
• Make expectations and instructions clear by repeating and rephrasing. Check to make sure every student, whether proficient in English or not, understands what is expected of them.
• Encourage group work in the classroom. By pairing English learners with native speakers, all students benefit.
• Practice vocabulary and explain what words mean. Offer synonyms.
• Encourage content area teachers to pursue ESL licensure. These teachers often get better results from their native English-speaking students as well, notes Karla Stone, an ESL coordinator in Minnesota's Robbinsdale School District, because they increase the amount of re-teaching and sheltered instruction in their classes.
Other suburban district leaders talk about a "push-in model" when it comes to serving English learners. "We are making a move not to pull out our ELL students but instead provide a more inclusive model," says Israel Vela, director of student special services in the Kent School District outside of Seattle, Washington.
Kent saw its English-learner population swell from 1,000 in 1995 to nearly 4,000 this year, including native Somali, Russian, and Ukrainian students. More than 120 languages are spoken in this Seattle suburb.
After hiring bilingual paraprofessionals to work in the classrooms alongside content area teachers, Kent can keep ELL students in the classroom so they can "experience standards-based instruction while still receiving language services," Vela adds.
Case Study: Learning Khmer
It was already two months into the school year when Nitha and Bora, two sisters from rural Cambodia, arrived in San Antonio. Just days earlier the girls' uncle had told them to pack their bags—they were moving with him to America. Neither spoke a word of English but were top students in their village school.
Both enrolled in fifth grade at Rogers Intermediate School. Their teacher had no ESL training, and the three other English language learners in the class—whose native languages were Thai, Russian, and Tagalog—already had intermediate to advanced English proficiency and did not need as much support.
"I was really impressed with their teacher," says Wayne Wright, a professor in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Texas, San Antonio, who speaks Khmer and ended up working with the girls. "She bent over backwards to accommodate them."
While the rest of the class multiplied fractions, Nitha and Bora worked with the teacher on a simplified math sheet she had created for them. The teacher found a Khmer-English dictionary and created color charts with Khmer and English words for the colors. She encouraged the girls to write translations for words on their schoolwork.
But for all her skill in differentiating instruction, the teacher also knew that Nitha and Bora needed direct, individualized help. Soon the girls were spending 45 minutes a day with an ESL-certified teacher. An aide to the school counselor also began spending time with them each day, mostly chatting. This friendly, talkative woman had no ESL training but unwittingly created what Wright calls "oral language heaven" for Nitha and Bora, simply by engaging them verbally.
"They picked up a lot of language from her, through her accessibility and individualized, friendly gestures," Wright says of the aide. "By the end of the school year they were able to make some conversation."
Still, school administrators were desperate to find someone who spoke Khmer. They contacted a military base in town, which then contacted Professor Wright.
"They were like sponges," Wright says. He worked with the girls on math vocabulary—words like addition and sum—and concepts that their classroom teacher and aide found too difficult to explain. "Nitha told me, ‘When you explain it in Khmer to us, it's so easy!'"